Birthday of W. E. B. Du Bois


On this day in 1868 William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Massachussets to parents Alfred and Mary Du Bois. W. E. B. Du Bois, as he came to be known, grew up in Great Barrington, a mostly white town. By the age of two, his father had abandoned the family and while Du Bois was still young, his mother had a stroke which left her unable to work. He became committed to his education, believing it to be a path to economic independence for him and his mother. As a result, he excelled at school. He later recalled that he rarely encountered prejudice from the community in Great Barrington, but through encounters with out-of-towners and the like, he came to understand that for some, there was a barrier between whites and blacks. After high school he attended Fisk University, a historically black college, and graduated in 1888, receiving a scholarship to Harvard University. He graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1890, winning a fellowship to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work which he finished at Harvard. During his time in Europe, he came to understand that race issues in the United States tied into larger problems manifest in political and economic development in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in America, combined his studies in history, economics and politics into an exercise in social science. He earned his Ph.D. in 1895, making him the first African American to receive a doctorate from America’s oldest institution of higher learning. He taught in Ohio at Wilberforce University for two years before working on a research study for University of Pennsylvania on Philadelphia’s black slums. This study, published as The Philadelphia Negro, was revolutionary in that it used a scientific approach integrating historical investigation, statistical and anthropological measurement, and sociological interpretation to examine a social phenomenon, leading some to call him the father of Social Science. He then moved to Atlanta University where he began an extensive study of morality, urbanization, education, religion, and crime in the black communities along with examining blacks in business. He also investigated the African past, putting together a narrative detailing the cultural, political and socioeconomic history of the African continent. During this time, his relationship became increasingly strained with the most prominent black person in America at the time, Booker T. Washington. Washington, head of Tuskeegee University, was a famous orator and advocated incremental progress in race relations, focusing on gaining industrial and vocational training for black people rather than political empowerment, civil rights or scholastic education. He advocated that an elite “Talented Tenth” would emerge, consisting of cultured and well-educated blacks who could gradually steer the greater black community toward progress. For this ideology, Du Bois and others perceived Washington to be a Southern accommodationist. In 1903 Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folks, where he directly responded to Washington in his chapter titled “Of Booker T. Washington and Others,” addressing and arguing against Washington’s approach. This and other happenings fueled antipathy between the two most prominent black intellectuals in the country. In 1906 Du Bois organized a meeting of like-minded activists, thus forming the “Niagara Movement.” They espoused civil justice and an end to discrimination against minorities. In 1909 many of the same people reorganized into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for which Du Bois became the Director of Publications and Research. Soon after he left his position at Atlanta University to work full time for the group where he wrote many commentaries for newspapers across the country and was editor-in-chief of the NAACP’s publication The Crisis. By the 1930s he had grown increasingly radical and distanced himself from the NAACP. In 1935 he published Black Reconstruction, a seminal work on the positive contributions of blacks in the Civil War and Reconstruction period. He continued to publish other books chronicling the history of Africa and the evils of imperialism in conjunction with his work with the Pan-Africanist Congress (see February 19). Later in life he became a vocal communist, taking trips to China and the USSR and also having to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He moved to Ghana, at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah, in 1961. He died in Accra, Ghana two years later at age 95, one day prior to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. A moment of silence was observed in his honor during the March on Washington.

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